Running on empty hasn’t been a problem for High Desert Middle School ever since the beginning of the current school year ushered in a new cross-country program – and the school apparently won’t be hitting a wall in the near future, either.
The new program, organized and directed by HDMS paraprofessional Rebekah Haverland, has already attracted significant interest from students who enjoy the camaraderie – and the snacks – that go along with distance running.
“I really try to push unity, because it’s a really self-motivating sport,” she says. “They need to understand that we’re there for each other. I’ve noticed having this cross-country team has started new friend groups, and the kids are sticking together more.”
Haverland has been an employee with the Globe Unified School District for six years. Last year, she coached cross-country and track and field at Globe High School when that program lost its coach midseason. Cross-country differs from track and field in that it’s purely devoted to running, while track and field in middle school has running as well as long jump, high jump, shot put, and discus.
Due to the constraints of time for Haverland, as well as Arizona Interscholastic Association rules prohibiting coaches from running high school and middle school programs simultaneously, the HDMS program was put on ice after a year as a club.
But now that it has the blessing of the GUSD board and administration, cross-country is an official activity for students, with a dedicated coach at the helm.
Stellar bona fides
Haverland graduated from Globe High School in 2002, and during her final two years there made a name for herself as a cross-country runner. In her junior year, she was the only girl on an otherwise all-boys team.
“That was probably my best year and my best motivation, because either I had to learn to keep up or I had to learn to be by myself,” she says. “It really pushed me because in order to stay with the boys, I had to stay with the boys.”
By her senior year, four other girls joined, and that was enough to constitute a cross-country team of Lady Tigers. The AIA allowed Haverland to roll over the points she’d scored on the boys team, which allowed them to qualify for the Down Under Sports Tournament in Australia. She joined a team composed of collegiate athletes from Arizona and New Mexico to travel and compete.
She was even talented enough to win a partial college scholarship, but had to decline it because she couldn’t afford to pick up the remainder of the costs.
“Running became a hobby at that point,” she says. “I hadn’t done it very much until about seven or eight years ago, when I got a foreign exchange student from Spain who wanted to try cross-country.”
At the time, Haverland was a supervisor for the foreign student exchange program, so helping her student opened the door for her to get back to an activity she loves.
Her accomplishments as a Tigers runner helped Haverland make a name for herself and established her reputation as a motivated competitor, which eased her transition into coaching for her alma mater.
After a year as a club activity, HDMS Principal Darryl Gentry was ready to take it to the level of a sanctioned activity for students emerging from the difficulties of the COVID pandemic.
“I saw it as an opportunity to get more kids involved in extracurricular activities,” Gentry says. “We might have kids interested in running who may not be interested in football or volleyball or other stuff we have going on. You want to give them an opportunity to excel at something they prefer.”
Gentry is in his third year as HDMS principal after moving to Globe from Texas at the onset of COVID. He sees activities outside the classroom as an important part of helping students readjust to the physical classroom and to build cohesiveness after many participated in distance learning for more than a year.
The rollout of the cross-country program was very successful, with 23 students initially signing up. HDMS has about 414 students in attendance, after dropping to about 130 at the height of the pandemic, according to Gentry.
Haverland says the number of students was higher than those who signed up for the GHS program, although she did lose three participants for various reasons.
HDMS cross-country has attracted a wide variety of students from all points of the Globe-Miami-San Carlos communities, and they’ve coalesced into a team that’s supportive of one another and their opponents.
Haverland’s daughter Haley is one participant who has rallied around her team – but she also loves the reward of gummy worms her mother uses as a motivating tool.
“It’s really fun and exhausting, but after practice we get gummy worms,” she says. “I definitely want to continue doing this in high school.”
Seventh-grader Haley has had challenges in her young life, undergoing back surgery when she was eight, but also dealing with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, a genetic condition that affects joints and connective tissues.
She hasn’t let that slow her down, though, or affect her enthusiasm for her chosen sport. She even sticks around after competing to cheer on her teammates, as well as encouraging competitors whose energy might be flagging.
“I like helping people,” the diminutive athlete says. “Whenever I pass a runner, I say, ‘Good job, you’re doing great, keep it up.’ Even if someone passes me I say, ‘Good job.’”
Parents of other students in the program have caught the bug from Haverland as well, and are impressed with her attention to detail and motivation to put on seamless events.
“I was surprised when my son (Weston Wong) came home – I think it was the first or second week – and said he joined cross-country,” says Globe native Debbie Yerkovich, who was unaware at the time of the program’s existence. “It’s nice that we’re finally stepping up our game to create a feeder program for high school cross-country and track.”
Yerkovich is one of a handful of volunteers helping at cross-country meets, but she gives all the credit for success to Haverland, who Yerkovich says does the lion’s share of the work.
Yerkovich has her own running history. As a Globe Tiger, she participated in cross-country – mainly for the pizza, she says – and believes it helps student athletes learn teamwork and gives them the opportunity to blossom doing something difficult.
She has seen those positive results in Weston’s participation.
“He definitely has more confidence in his body’s ability,” she says. “To see him from the beginning and towards the end of cross-country and to know that he could push himself that hard is a really important aspect of it.”
As an adult who was once a student athlete himself, HDMS Principal Gentry is also impressed with the progress that’s been made and says they will continue the program beyond this school year. The school district even offers rides to students as an incentive to participate.
“Rebekah does an amazing job organizing the practices,” he concludes. “There’s a lot to it, but just to see her hustle, preparing routes, preparing the ground, getting the kids ready, and talking to parents. She’s consistently engaged.”
As to Haverland, while she loves running and coaching, ultimately it’s her love of the students that keeps her going.
“Kids are such a great motivation, because I feel like I’m adding to them. I feel like it makes them better,” Haverland says. “And that benefits our world as a whole, because these are the kids that we’re going to put out there to be our everything. To be our pharmacists, our doctors, our lawyers, and our politicians. There are a lot of life metaphors you can take from running.”
Journalist, writer and editor who has worked for community newspapers for more than 15 years. After four years at Davis-Monthan AFB and a few years living in Tucson, moved to California to find his fortune. He is happy to be back in Arizona, in the mountains he loves.